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29 August 2014

Can technology bring us peace?

SevereThe summer months of 2014 have brought us a sickening surfeit of awful news. Our newsfeeds have been full of conflict, casualties, and brutalities in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and so on. For example, just a couple of days ago, my browser screamed at me, Let’s be clear about this: Russia is invading Ukraine right now. And my TV has just informed me that the UK’s terror threat level is being raised from “substantial” to “severe”:

The announcement comes amid increasing concern about hundreds of UK nationals who are believed by security services to have travelled to fight in Iraq and Syria.

These real-world conflicts have been giving rise to online mirror conflicts among many of the people that I tend to respect. These online controversies play out heated disputes about the rights and wrongs of various participants in the real-world battles. Arguments ding-dong ferociously: What is the real reason that MH17 plane was shot down? How disproportionate is the response by Israel to provocations from Hamas? How much is Islamic belief to blame for the barbarism of the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or is the US to blame, on account of its ill-advised meddling in far-off lands? And how fair is it to compare Putin to Hitler?

But at a recent informal pub gathering of London Futurists, one of the long-time participants in these meetups, Andrius Kasparavicius, asked a hard question. Shouldn’t those of us who believe in the transformational potential of new technology – those of us who dare to call ourselves technoprogressives, transhumanists, or social futurists – have a better answer to these conflict flashpoints? Rather than falling back into twentieth century diatribes against familiar bête noir villains, isn’t it worth striving to find a 21st century viewpoint that transcends such rivalries? We talk a lot about innovation: can’t we be innovative about solving these global flashpoints?

A similar thought gnawed at me a few weeks later, during a family visit to Inverness. A local production of West Side Story was playing at the Eden Court theatre. Bernstein’s music was exhilarating. Sondheim’s lyrics were witty and provocative. The cast shimmied and slunk around the stage. From our vantage point in the second row of seats, we could see all the emotions flit across the faces of the performers. The sudden tragic ending hit hard. And I thought to myself: These two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, were locked into a foolish, needless struggle. They lacked an adult, future perspective. Isn’t it the same with the tragic conflicts that occupy our newsfeeds? These conflicts have their own Jets and Sharks, and, yes, a lack of an adult, future perspective. Can’t they see the better future which is within our collective grasp, if only they can cast aside their tribal perspectives?

That thought was soon trumped by another: the analogy is unfair. Some battles are worth fighting. For example, if we take no action against Islamic State, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an ever worse spate of summary beheadings, forced conversions, women being driven into servitude roles in societies all over the middle east, and terrorist strikes throughout the wider world.

But still… isn’t it worth considering possible technological, technoprogressive, or transhumanist approaches to peace?

  • After all, we say that technology changes everything. History is the story of the continual invention and enhancement of tools, machines, and devices of numerous sorts, which transform human experience in all fields of life.
  • Indeed, human progress has taken place by the discovery and mastery of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene.
  • What’s more, the rate of technological change is increasing, as larger numbers of engineers, scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs from around the globe participate in a rich online network exchange of ideas and information. Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced.
  • So shouldn’t the further development of technology give us more options to achieve lasting resolution of global flashpoints?

Event previewTherefore I have arranged an online hangout discussion meeting: Global flashpoints: what do transhumanists have to say? This will be taking place at 7pm UK time this Sunday, 31st August. The corresponding YouTube video page (for people who prefer not to log into Google+ in order to view the Hangout that way) is here. I’ll be joined in this discussion by a number of thinkers from different transhumanist perspectives, based around Europe.

I’ve put a plaintive note on the meeting invite:

In our discussion, we’ll try to transcend the barbs and scape-goating that fills so much of existing online discussion about Iraq/Syria/Ukraine/Gaza/etc.

I honestly don’t know how the discussion is going to unfold. But here are some possible lines of argument:

  1. Consider the flashpoint in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting dead of teenager Michael Brown. That particular conflict arose, in part, because of disputes over what actually happened at the time of the shooting. But if the police in Ferguson had all been wearing and operating personal surveillance cameras,  then perhaps a lot of the heat would have gone out of the issue. That would be one example of taking advantage of recent improvements in technology in order to defuse a potential conflict hotspot
  2. Much conflict is driven by people feeling a sense of profound alienation from mainstream culture. Disaffected youths from all over Europe are leaving their families behind to travel to support fundamentalist Islamic causes in the middle east. They need a much better vision of the future, to reduce the chance that they will fall prey to these particular mind viruses. Could social futurism, technoprogressivism, and transhumanism offer that alternative vision?
  3. Rather than technology helping to create peace, there’s a major risk it will help to worsen conflicts. Powerful arsenals in the hands of malcontents are likely to have a more horrific impact nowadays – and an even worse one in the near future – than corresponding weaponry had in the past. Think also of the propaganda value of Islamic State execution videos distributed via YouTube – that kind of effect was unthinkable just a decade ago.

Existential ThreatOf these three lines of discussion, I am most persuaded by the third one. The implications are as follows. The message that we social futurists and transhumanists should be highlighting, in response to these outrages is, sadly, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. There are actually existential risks that will deserve very serious collective action, in order to solve. In that case, it’s even more imperative that the global community gets its act together, and finds a more effective way to resolve the conflicts in our midst.

At the same time, we do need to emphasise the positive vision of where the world could reach in, say, just a few decades: a world with enormous abundance, fuelled by new technologies (nanotech, solar energy, rejuvenation biotech, ubiquitous smart robots) – a world that will transcend the aspirations of all existing ideologies. If we can make the path to this future more credible, there’s good reason to hope that people all over the world will set aside their previous war-like tendencies, tribal loyalties, and dark age mythologies.

 

22 June 2014

The critical importance of culture engineering

Here’s a prediction for what the world will be like in thirty years’ time:

The world will be at a new orbit in history. We will translive all over this planet and the solar sphere — home everywhere. We will be hyperfluid: skim on land — swim in the deep oceans — flash across the sky. Family will have given way to Universal life. People will linkup/linkout free of kinship and possessiveness. We will stream ahead propelled by a cornucopia of abundance. Life expectancy will be indefinite. Disease and disability will nonexist. Death will be rare and accidental-but not permanent. We will continuously jettison our obsolescence and grow younger…

One problem with this prediction is that it was made more than thirty years ago. It dates from June 1981, when it was published by FM Esfandiary in his article “Up-Wing Priorities”. The text can be retrieved from the Internet Archive. I thank Alexander Sabatelli for drawing this quote to my attention (in a posting in Rational Transhumanism). I omitted from the above quote the lead-in clause “Around 2010”, and the sentence after the quote,

At 2000 plus ten all this will be the norm — hardly considered marvelous.

FM Esfandiary describes his own track record at the start of his article:

FM. Esfandiary is a telecommunicator — writer — long-range planner — university lecturer. He has taught Up- Wing philosophy since the mid-1960s— first at the New School for Social Research (New York) and currently at UCLA (Extension). His most recent books are Optimism One — Up- Wingers — Telespheres.

Esfandiary says: “l am universal. I translive all over the planet. Learn via telecom. Have many professions. Am involved with many people. Consider all children as mine also. Neither right nor left — / am Up. I have no age. Am born and reborn everyday. I intend to live forever. Barring an accident I probably will. I also want to help others live on indefinitely.

More details about FM Esfaniary can be found in the Wikipedia article about him:

  • He legally changed his name to FM-2030, in part to reflect the hope and belief that he would live to celebrate his 100th birthday in 2030
  • He published a book in 1989 with the title Are You a Transhuman?: Monitoring and Stimulating Your Personal Rate of Growth in a Rapidly Changing World
  • As such, he is widely regarded as one of the founding figures of modern transhumanism
  • Despite issues with some of his predictions (as in the example above), he had greater success with many of his other forecasts about future technology
  • In July 2000, he died from pancreatic cancer and was placed in cryonic suspension at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, where his body remains today.

For those who want to find out more about FM-2030, the Galactic Public Archives channel on YouTube has combined some audio recordings of his lectures with some imaginative visuals. For example, here’s a five minute video entitled “FM-2030: Are You Transhuman?”

Stepping aside from the biographical details, a larger question looms, for anyone (like myself) who believes in the potential to radically transform human experience:

  • What prevents present-day techno-optimism about the future from having the same fate as the above over-optimistic prognostications from 1981?

Five factors that can undermine predictions of faster progress

Cover page v3I address that question in my chapter “Roadblocks en route to 2025” in the recently published book “Anticipating 2025: A guide to the radical changes that may lie ahead, whether or not we’re ready”.

In that chapter, I list factors that can undermine predictions of tech-driven progress:

1.The underlying core engineering may turn out to be harder than expected. Nuclear fusion is a case in point; another is battery lifetime. It may also prove unexpectedly hard to obtain the kind of smooth, responsive, reliable performance from the underlying components demanded by busy “mainstream” customers who are unprepared to tolerate long delays or awkward interfaces.

2.Applications need to be developed that will harness the underlying core technology to deliver real value to users. This requires a lot of attention to design matters. It also often involves integrating technologies from diverse sources – technologies that are individually capable but which can fail when combined together. This integration process in turn relies on suitable interfaces (sometimes called “APIs”) being available to developers.

3.The surrounding network infrastructure and business environment needs to be sufficiently supportive. Products and services rarely operate in isolation. Electric cars rely on an infrastructure to support car battery recharging. Smartphones relied on wireless networks as well as on device manufacturers; they also relied on functioning “application stores”. In other words, what business analysts call “the value chain” needs to be put in place. The problem here, however, is that different companies make different assessments of the priorities of creating a new value chain. Vested interests are often ill-disposed towards enabling innovative new products to plug into their networks. The resulting inertia dampens progress.

4.The legislative and regulatory framework needs to be sufficiently supportive.Government rules about inspections, certification, standards, and subsidies often have the effect of favouring the status quo rather than new, game-changing solutions. This effect can be compounded when vested business interests who are opposed to particular new disruptive innovations have a disproportionate influence over any changes in legislation.

5.The mindset of potential users of applications of the technology needs to be supportive. This can also be described as the prevailing “philosophy” or “zeitgeist”. For example, public attitudes towards GM (genetically modified) food differ between the US (generally positive) and Europe (generally hostile). This has led the GM industry to develop more fully in North America than in Europe. Importantly, public attitudes can change. Initial public fears about IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) – including suspicions that “soulless little devils” might be created by this new technology – soon turned to warm acceptance as the healthy vitality of the resulting “test-tube babies” became clear for all to see. However, other elements of negative thinking remain deeply ingrained in the public mind. This includes the viewpoint that the onset of frailty and bodily decay with increasing age, leading to death, is somehow a desirable aspect of human existence.

Changing mindsets

As I go on to explain in that chapter, I have come to see one of these five categories of obstacle as being more significant than the others. This is the obstacle caused by an antagonistic mindset from the general public. If users are resolutely suspicious of technologies that would disturb key familiar aspects of “life as we know it”, engineers will face an uphill battle to secure sufficient funding to bring these technologies to the market – even if society would eventually end up significantly improved as a result.

Politicians generally take actions that reflect the views of the electorate, as expressed through public media, opinion polls, and (occasionally) in the ballot box. However, the electorate is subject to all manners of cognitive bias, prejudice, and continuing reliance on rules of thumb which made sense in previous times but which have been rendered suspect by changing circumstances. These viewpoints include:

  • Honest people should put in forty hours of work in meaningful employment each week
  • People should be rewarded for their workplace toil by being able to retire around the age of 65
  • Except for relatively peripheral matters, “natural methods” are generally the best ones
  • Attempts to redesign human nature – or otherwise to “play God” – will likely cause disaster
  • It’s a pointless delusion to think that the course of personal decay and death can be averted.

In some cases, long-entrenched viewpoints can be overturned by a demonstration that a new technology produces admirable results – as in the case of IVF. But in other cases, minds need to be changed even before a full demonstration can become possible.

It’s for this reason that I see the discipline of “culture engineering” as being equally important as “technology engineering”. The ‘culture’ here refers to cultures of humans, not cells. The ‘engineering’ means developing and applying a set of skills – skills to change the set of prevailing ideas concerning the desirability of particular technological enhancements. Both technology engineering and culture engineering are deeply hard skills; both need a great deal of attention.

A core part of “culture engineering” fits under the name “marketing”. Some technologists bristle at the concept of marketing. They particularly dislike the notion that marketing can help inferior technology to triumph over superior technology. But in this context, what do “inferior” and “superior” mean? These judgements are relative to how well technology is meeting the dominant desires of people in the marketplace.

Marketing means selecting, understanding, inspiring, and meeting key needs of what can be called “influence targets” – namely, a set of “tipping point” consumers, developers, and partners. Specifically, marketing includes:

  • Forming a roadmap of deliverables, that build, step-by-step, to delivering something of great benefit to the influence targets, but which also provide, each step of the way, something with sufficient value to maintain their active interest
  • Astutely highlighting the ways in which present (and forthcoming) products will, indeed, provide value to the influence targets
  • Avoiding any actions which, despite the other good things that are happening, alienate the influence targets; and in the event any such alienation emerges, taking swift and decisive action to address it.

Culture engineering involves politics as well as marketing. Politics means building alliances that can collectively apply power to bring about changes in regulations, standards, subsidies, grants, and taxation. Choosing the right partners, and carefully managing relationships with them, can make a big difference to the effectiveness of political campaigns. To many technologists, “politics” is as dirty a word as “marketing”. But once again, mastery of the relevant skillset can make a huge difference to the adoption of technologies.

The final component of culture engineering is philosophy – sets of arguments about fundamentals and values. For example, will human flourishing happen more fully under simpler lifestyles, or by more fully embracing the radical possibilities of technology? Should people look to age-old religious traditions to guide their behaviour, or instead seek a modern, rational, scientific basis for morality? And how should the freedoms of individuals to experiment with potentially dangerous new kinds of lifestyle be balanced against the needs of society as a whole?

“Philosophy” is (you guessed it) yet another dirty word, in the minds of many technologists. To these technologists, philosophical arguments are wastes of time. Yet again, I will disagree. Unless we become good at philosophy – just as we need to become good at both politics and marketing – we will fail to rescue the prevailing culture from its unhelpful mix of hostility and apathy towards the truly remarkable potential to use technology to positively transcend human nature. And unless that change in mindset happens, the prospects are uncertain for the development and adoption of the remarkable technologies of abundance mentioned earlier.

For more details about the Anticipating 2025 book, click here.

And see below for a short video from the opening of the second day of the Anticipating 2025 conference, in which I link the concept of Culture Engineering back to remarks from the first day of that conference.

An earlier version of this blogpost first appeared on my channel in LinkedIn.

26 September 2013

Risk blindness and the forthcoming energy crash

Filed under: books, carbon, chaos, climate change, Economics, irrationality, politics, risks, solar energy — David Wood @ 11:28 am

‘Logical’ is the last thing human thinking, individual and collective, is. Too compelling an argument can even drive people with a particularly well-insulated belief system deeper into denial.

JL in Japan 2The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, by Jeremy Leggett, is full of vividly quotable aphorisms – such as the one I’ve just cited. I see Jeremy as one of the world’s leading thinkers on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and the dysfunctional ways in which investment all-too-frequently works. The Observer has described him as “Britain’s most respected green energy boss”. A glance at his CV shows an impressive range of accomplishments:

Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s fastest growing renewable energy company since 2000, and founder and chairman of SolarAid, an African solar lighting charity set up with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits and itself parent to a social venture, SunnyMoney, that is the top-selling retailer of solar lights in Africa.

Jeremy has been a CNN Principal Voice, and an Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards. He was the first Hillary Laureate for International Leadership on Climate Change, chairs the financial-sector think-tank Carbon Tracker and is a consultant on systemic risk to large corporations. He writes and blogs on occasion for the Guardian and the Financial Times, lectures on short courses in business and society at the universities of Cambridge and St Gallen, and is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

On his own website, The triple crunch log, Jeremy has the following to say about himself:

This log covers the energy-, climate-, and financial crises, and issues pertinent to society’s response to this “triple crunch”…

Let me explain why am I worried about oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment.

I researched earth history for 14 years, and so know a bit about what makes up the climate system. I researched oil source rocks for several of those years, funded by BP and Shell among others, and I explored for oil and gas in the Middle East and Asia, so I have a background in the issues relevant to peak oil. And more recently I have been a clean-energy entrepreneur and investor for more than decade, as founder of a solar energy company and founding director of a Swiss venture capital fund, so I have seen how the capital markets operate close to. That experience is the basis for my concerns…

Many of the critics who comment on my blogs urge readers to discount everything I say because I am trying to sell solar energy, and so therefore must be in it for the money, hyping concerns about climate change and peak oil in the cause of self enrichment. (As you would). They have it completely the wrong way round.

I left a lucrative career consulting for the oil industry, and teaching its technicians, because I was concerned about global warming and wanted to act on that concern. I joined Greenpeace (1989), on a fraction of my former income, to campaign for clean energy. I left Greenpeace (1997) to set up a non-profit organisation campaigning for clean energy. I turned it into a for-profit company (1999) because I came to the view that was the best possible way I could campaign for clean energy – by creating a commercial success that could show the way. The company I set up gives 5% of its operating profit to a charity that also campaigns for clean energy, SolarAid. All that said, I hope Solarcentury makes a lot of money. It won’t have succeeded in its mission if it doesn’t. I’m hoping fewer people will still want to discount my arguments, knowing the history.

Today marks the UK availability of his book, The Energy of Nations. Heeding its own advice, quoted above, that there are drawbacks to presenting arguments in an overly rational or compelling format, the book proceeds down a parallel course. A large part of the book reads more like a novel than a textbook, with numerous fascinating episodes retold from Jeremy’s diaries.

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The cast of characters that have walk-on parts in these episodes include prime ministers, oil industry titans, leading bankers, journalists, civil servants, analysts, and many others. Heroes and villains appear and re-appear, sometimes grown wiser with the passage of years, but sometimes remaining as recalcitrant, sinister (yes), and slippery (yes again) as ever.

A core theme of the book is risk blindness. Powerful vested interests in society have their own reasons to persuade public opinion that there’s nothing to worry about – that everything is under control. Resources at the disposal of these interests (“the incumbency”) inflict a perverse blindness on society, as regards the risks of the status quo. Speaking against the motion at a debate, This House Believes Peak Oil Is No Longer a Concern, in London’s Queen Elizabeth II Congress Centre in March 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis brought on by hugely unwarranted over-confidence among bankers, Jeremy left a trenchant analogy hanging in the mind of the audience:

I explain that those of us who worry about peak oil fear that the oil industry has lapsed into a culture of over-exuberance about both the remaining oil reserves and prospects of resources yet to be turned into reserves, and about the industry’s ability to deliver capacity to the market even if enough resources exist.

Our main argument is that new capacity flows coming onstream from discoveries made by the oil industry over the past decade don’t compensate for depletion. Hence projections of demand cannot be met a few years hence. This problem will be compounded by other issues, including the accelerating depletion of the many old oilfields that prop up much of global oil production today, the probable exaggeration by OPEC countries of their reserves, and the failure of the ‘price-mechanism’ assumption that higher prices will lead to increased exploration and expanding discoveries…

In conclusion, this debate is all about the risk of a mighty global industry having its asset assessment systemically overstated, due to an endemic culture of over-optimism, with potentially ruinous economic implications.

I pause to let that sentence hang in the air for a second or two.

Now that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?

This none too subtle allusion to the disaster playing out in the financial sector elicits a polite laugh from the audience…

Nowadays, people frequently say that the onset of shale oil and gas should dissolve fears about impending reductions in the availability of oil. Jeremy sees this view as profoundly misguided. Shale is likely to fall far, far short of the expectations that have been heaped on it:

For many, the explosive growth of shale gas production in the USA – now extending into oil from shale, or ‘tight oil’ as it is properly known – is a revolution, a game-changer, and it even heralds a ‘new era of fossil fuels’. For a minority, it shows all the signs of being the next bubble in the markets.

In the incumbency’s widely held view, the US shale gas phenomenon can be exported, opening the way to cheap gas in multiple countries. For others, even if there is no bubble, the phenomenon is not particularly exportable, for a range of environmental, economic and political reasons

This risk too entails shock potential. Take a country like the UK. Its Treasury wishes actively to suppress renewables, so as to ensure that investors won’t be deterred from bankrolling the conversion of the UK into a ‘gas hub’. Picture the scene if most of the national energy eggs are put in that basket, infrastructure is capitalised, and then supplies of cheap gas fall far short of requirement, or even fail to materialise.

As the book makes clear, our collective risk blindness prevents society as a whole from reaching a candid appraisal of no fewer than five major risks facing us over the next few years: oil shock, climate shock, a further crash in the global financial system, the bursting of a carbon bubble in the capital markets, and the crash of the shale gas boom. The emphasis on human irrationality gels with a lot of my own prior reading – as I’ve covered e.g. in Our own entrenched enemies of reasonAnimal spirits – a richer understanding of economics, Influencer – the power to change anything, as well as in my most recent posting When faith gets in the way of progress.

The book concludes with a prediction that society is very likely to encounter, by as early as 2015, either a dramatic oil shock (the widespread realisation that the era of cheap oil is behind us, and that the oil industry has misled us as badly as did the sellers of financial hocus pocus), or a renewed financial crisis, which would then precipitate (but perhaps more slowly) the same oil shock. To that extent, the book is deeply pessimistic.

But there is plenty of optimism in the book too. The author believes – as do I – that provided suitable preparatory steps are taken (as soon as possible), society ought to be able to rebound from the forthcoming crash. He spends time explaining “five premises for the Road to Renaissance”:

  1. The readiness of clean energy for explosive growth
  2. The intrinsic pro-social attributes of clean energy
  3. The increasing evidence of people power in the world
  4. The pro-social tendencies in the human mind
  5. The power of context that leaders will be operating in after the oil crash.

But alongside his optimism, he issues a sharp warning:

I do not pretend that things won’t get much worse before they get better. There will be rioting. There will be food kitchens. There will be blood. There already have been, after the financial crash of 2008. But the next time round will be much worse. In the chaos, we could lose our way like the Maya did.

In summary, it’s a profoundly important book. I found it to be a real pleasure to read, even though the topic is nerve-racking. I burst out laughing in a number of places, and then reflected that it was nervous laughter.

The book is full of material that will probably make you want to underline it or tweet an extract online. The momentum builds up to a dramatic conclusion. Anyone concerned about the future should make time to read it.

Not everyone will agree with everything it contains, but it is clearly an honest and heartfelt contribution to vital debates. The book has already been receiving some terrific reviews from an interesting variety of people. You can see those, a summary, Chapter One, and links for buying the book here.

Finally, it’s a book that is designed to provoke discussion. I’m delighted that the author has agreed to speak at a London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October. Please click here for more details and to RSVP. This is a first class topic addressed by a first class speaker, which deserves a first class audience to match!

21 March 2013

The burning need for better supra-national governance

International organisations have a bad reputation these days. The United Nations is widely seen as ineffective. There’s a retreat towards “localism”: within Britain, the EU is unpopular; within Scotland, Britain is unpopular. And any talk of “giving up sovereignty” is deeply unpopular.

However, lack of effective international organisations and supra-national governance is arguably the root cause of many of the biggest crises facing humanity in the early 21st century.

That was the thesis which Ian Goldin, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, very ably shared yesterday evening in the Hong Kong Theatre in the London School of Economics. He was quietly spoken, but his points hit home strongly. I was persuaded.

DividedNationsThe lecture was entitled Divided Nations: Why global governance is failing and what we can do about it. It coincided with the launch of a book with the same name. For more details of the book, see this blogpost on the website of the Oxford Martin School, where Ian Goldin holds the role of Director.

It’s my perception that many technology enthusiasts, futurists, and singularitarians have a blind spot when it comes to the topic of the dysfunction of current international organisations. They tend to assume that technological improvements will automatically resolve the crises and risks facing society. Governments and regulators should ideally leave things well alone – so the plea goes.

My own view is that smarter coordination and regulation is definitely needed – even though it will be hard to set that up. Professor Goldin’s lecture amply reinforced that view.

On the train home from the lecture, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle. I recommend anyone who is serious about the future of humanity to read it. Drawing upon the assembled insights and wisdom of the remarkable set of scholars at the Oxford Martin School, in addition to his own extensive experience in the international scene, Professor Goldin has crystallised state-of-the-art knowledge regarding the pressing urgency, and options, for better supra-national governance.

In the remainder of this blogpost, I share some of the state-of-consciousness notes that I typed while listening to the lecture. Hopefully this will give a flavour of the hugely important topics covered. I apologise in advance for any errors introduced in transcription. Please see the book itself for an authoritative voice. See also the live tweet stream for the meeting, with the hash-tag #LSEGoldin.

What keeps Oxford Martin scholars awake at night

The fear that no one is listening. The international governance system is in total gridlock. There are failures on several levels:

  • Failure of governments to lift themselves to a higher level, instead of being pre-occupied by local, parochial interests
  • Failure of electorates to demand more from their governments
  • Failure of governments for not giving clearer direction to the international institutions.

Progress with international connectivity

80 countries became democratic in the 1990s. Only one country in the world today remains disconnected – North Korea.

Over the last few decades, the total global population has increased, but the numbers in absolute poverty have decreased. This has never happened before in history.

So there are many good aspects to the increase in the economy and inter-connectivity.

However, economists failed to think sufficiently far ahead.

What economists should have thought about: the global commons

What was rational for the individuals and for national governments was not rational for the whole world.

Similar problems exist in several other fields: antibiotic resistance, global warming, the markets. He’ll get to these shortly.

The tragedy of the commons is that, when everyone does what is rational for them, everyone nevertheless ends up suffering. The common resource is not managed.

The pursuit of profits is a good thing – it has worked much better than central planning. But the result is irrationality in aggregate.

The market alone cannot provide a response to resource allocation. Individual governments cannot provide a solution either. A globally coordinated approach is needed.

Example of several countries drawing water from the Aral Sea – which is now arid.

That’s what happens when nations do the right thing for themselves.

The special case of Finance

Finance is by far the most sophisticated of the resource management systems:

  • The best graduates go into the treasury, the federal reserve, etc
  • They are best endowed – the elite organisation
  • These people know each other – they play golf together.

If even the financial bodies can’t understand their own system, this has black implications for other systems.

The growth of the financial markets had two underbellies:

  1. Growing inequality
  2. Growing potential for systemic risk

The growing inequality has actually led to lobbying that exaggerates inequality even more.

The result was a “Race to the bottom”, with governments being persuaded to get out of the regulation of things that actually did need to be regulated.

Speaking after the crisis, Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, in effect said “we just did not understand what was happening” – even with all the high-calibre people and advice available to him. That’s a shocking indictment.

The need for regulation

Globalisation requires regulation, not just at the individual national level, but at an international level.

Global organisations are weaker now than in the 1990s.

Nations are becoming more parochial – the examples of UK (thinking of leaving EU) and Scotland (thinking of leaving UK) are mirrored elsewhere too.

Yes, integration brings issues that are hard to control, but the response to withdraw from integration is terribly misguided.

We cannot put back the walls. Trying to withdraw into local politics is dreadfully misguided.

Five examples

His book has five examples as illustrations of his general theme (and that’s without talking in this book about poverty, or nuclear threats):

  1. Finance
  2. Pandemics
  3. Migration
  4. Climate change
  5. Cyber-security

Many of these problems arise from the success of globalisation – the extraordinary rise in incomes worldwide in the last 25 years.

Pandemics require supra-national attention, because of increased connectivity:

  • The rapid spread of swine flu was correlated tightly with aircraft travel.
  • It will just take 2 days for a new infectious disease to travel all the way round the world.

The idea that you can isolate yourself from the world is a myth. There’s little point having a quarantine regime in place in Oxford if a disease is allowed to flourish in London. The same applies between countries, too.

Technology developments exacerbate the problem. DNA analysis is a good thing, but the capacity to synthesise diseases has terrible consequences:

  • There’s a growing power for even a very small number of individuals to cause global chaos, e.g. via pathogens
  • Think of something like Waco Texas – people who are fanatical Armageddonists – but with greater technical skills.

Cyber-security issues arise from the incredible growth in network connectivity. Jonathan Zittrain talks about “The end of the Internet”:

  • The Internet is not governed by governments
  • Problems to prosecute people, even when we know who they are and where they are (but in a different jurisdiction)
  • Individuals and small groups could destabilise whole Internet.

Migration is another “orphan issue”. No international organisation has the authority to deal with it:

  • Control over immigration is, in effect, an anarchic, bullying system
  • We have very bad data on migration (even in the UK).

The existing global institutions

The global institutions that we have were a response to post-WW2 threats.

For a while, these institutions did well. The World Bank = Bank for reconstruction. It did lead a lot of reconstruction.

But over time, we became complacent. The institutions became out-dated and lost their vitality.

The recent financial crisis shows that the tables have been turned round: incredible scene of EU taking its begging bowl to China.

The tragedy is that the lessons well-known inside the existing institutions have not been learned. There are lessons about the required sequencing of reforms, etc. But with the loss of vitality of these institutions, the knowledge is being lost.

The EU has very little bandwidth for managing global affairs. Same as US. Same as Japan. They’re all preoccupied by local issues.

The influence of the old G7 is in decline. The new powers are not yet ready to take over the responsibility: China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa…

  • The new powers don’t actually want this responsibility (different reasons for different countries)
  • China, the most important of the new powers, has other priorities – managing their own poverty issues at home.

The result is that no radical reform happens, of the international institutions:

  • No organisations are killed off
  • No new ones created
  • No new operating principles are agreed.

Therefore the institutions remain ineffective. Look at the lack of meaningful progress towards solving the problems of climate change.

He has been on two Bretton Woods reform commissions, along with “lots of wonderfully smart, well-meaning people”. Four prime ministers were involved, including Gordon Brown. Kofi Annan received the report with good intentions. But no actual reform of UN took place. Governments actually want these institutions to remain weak. They don’t want to give up their power.

It’s similar to the way that the UK is unwilling to give up power to Brussels.

Sleep-walking

The financial crisis shows what happens when global systems aren’t managed:

  • Downwards spiral
  • Very hard to pull it out afterwards.

We are sleep-walking into global crises. The financial crisis is just a foretaste of what is to come. However, this need not be the case.

A positive note

He’ll finish the lecture by trying to be cheerful.

Action on global issues requires collective action by both citizens and leaders who are not afraid to relinquish power.

The good news:

  • Citizens are more connected than ever before
  • Ideologies that have divided people in the past are reducing in power
  • We can take advantage of the amplification of damage to reputation that can happen on the Internet
  • People can be rapidly mobilised to overturn bad legislation.

Encouraging example of SOPA debate in US about aspects of control of the Internet:

  • 80 million people went online to show their views, in just two days
  • Senate changed their intent within six hours.

Some good examples where international coordination works

  • International plane travel coordination (air traffic control) is example that works very well – it’s a robust system
  • Another good example: the international postal system.

What distinguishes the successes from the failures:

  • In the Air Traffic Control case, no one has a different interest
  • But in other cases, there are lots of vested interest – neutering the effectiveness of e.g. the international response to the Syrian crisis
  • Another troubling failure example is what happened in Iraq – it was a travesty of what the international system wanted and needed.

Government leaders are afraid that electorate aren’t ready to take a truly international perspective. To be internationalist in political circles is increasingly unfashionable. So we need to change public opinion first.

Like-minded citizens need to cooperate, building a growing circle of legitimacy. Don’t wait for the global system to play catch-up.

In the meantime, true political leaders should find some incremental steps, and should avoid excuse of global inaction.

Sadly, political leaders are often tied up addressing short-term crises, but these short-term crises are due to no-one satisfactorily addressing the longer-term issues. With inaction on the international issues, the short-term crises will actually get worse.

Avoiding the perfect storm

The scenario we face for the next 15-20 years is “perfect storm with no captain”.

He calls for a “Manhattan project” for supra-national governance. His book is a contribution to initiating such a project.

He supports the subsidiarity principle: decisions should be taken at the most local level possible. Due to hyper-globalisation, there are fewer and fewer things that it makes sense to control at the national level.

Loss of national sovereignty is inevitable. We can have better sovereignty at the global level – and we can influence how that works.

The calibre of leaders

Example of leader who consistently took a global perspective: Nelson Mandela. “Unfortunately we don’t have many Mandelas around.”

Do leaders owe their power bases with electorates because they are parochial? The prevailing wisdom is that national leaders have to shy away from taking a global perspective. But the electorate actually have more wisdom. They know the financial crisis wasn’t just due to bankers in Canary Wharf having overly large bonuses. They know the problems are globally systemic in nature, and need global approaches to fix them.

ian goldin

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:
Race

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.

Endnote:

After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.




Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

28 July 2012

More for us all, or more for them?

Filed under: books, disruption, Economics, futurist, Humanity Plus, politics, UKH+ — David Wood @ 1:15 pm

The opening keynote speaker at this weekend’s World Future 2012 conference this weekend was Lee Rainie, the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Lee’s topic, “Future of the Internet”, was described as follows in the conference agenda:

In this keynote presentation based on his latest book, Networked: The New Social Operating System (co-authored with Barry Wellman), Dr. Rainie will discuss the findings of the most recent expert surveys on the future of teens’ brains, the future of universities, the future of money, the impact of Big Data, the battle between apps and the Web, the spread of gamefication, and the impact of smart systems on consumers.

That was a lot to cover in 45 minutes, but Lee said he would speak fast – and he did!

Analysis  of the Pew Internet expert surveys Lee mentions is available online at http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/2012survey/ – where you’ll find a wealth of fascinating material.

But Lee’s summary of the summary (if I can put it like that) is that there are two potential pathways ahead, between now and 2020, regarding what happens with Internet technology:

  1. In one pathway, we all benefit: the fruits of improving Internet technologies are widely shared
  2. In another pathway, the benefits are much more restricted, to “them”.

Hence the question: “More for us all, or more for them?”

“Them” could be political leaders, or it could be corporate leaders.

Listening to Lee’s words, I was struck by a powerful resonance with the main theme of a BIG book on history that I’m the processing of reading. (Actually, I’m listening to an Audible version of it on my iPod.)

The book is “Why nations fail the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty“, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It has a marvelous sweep through events in all eras of human history and in all corners of the globe.

I’m only six hours into what will be a 15 hour long listen, but I already suspect this to be the most important book about history that I’ve ever read. (And as regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot.)

It’s not just “one thing after another” (fascinating though that kind of history book can be), but a profound analysis of the causes of divergence between societies with prosperity and societies with poverty.

In brief, the primary differentiator is the kind of political institutions that exist:

  • Are they extractive, in which the outputs of society are siphoned by a relatively small elite
  • Or are they inclusive, which a much greater sharing of power, influence, and potential benefit?

The nature of political institutions in turn influence the nature and operation of economic institutions.

The book has many striking examples of how ruling elites blocked the development or the wider application of technology and/or market reforms, fearing the “creative destruction” which would be likely to follow – threatening their grip on power.

One example in the book is the story of the reaction of the Roman emperor Tiberius to the invention of unbreakable glass. This story is also told by, for example, Computer World blogger John Riley, in his article “Why innovation is not always welcomed with open arms“:

The story of the Roman inventor of flexible glass 2000 years ago is a salutary lesson for all innovators, especially those within organisations.

As Isadore of Seville tells it, the inventor went to the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) with a drinking bowl made of this flexible and ductile glass, and threw in on the ground to demonstrate that it didn’t shatter.

Tiberius asked him if anyone else knew about the invention. The inventor said he’d told no-one.

And he was instantly beheaded.

What the unfortunate inventor hadn’t seen was the big picture – Tiberius had instantly realised that cheap, easily produced flexible glass that didn’t break would wreck the Imperial monopoly on gold and silver!

That, sadly is too often the case in big companies, where someone comes up with a bright idea which in practice means interfering with a profitable short term operation or disintermediating a product line.

In such cases innovators these days don’t get killed – they get ignored, sidelined, blocked or gagged under non-disclosures. Many innovative products have been  rejected by large suppliers controlling projects when they threaten monopolistic inefficiencies. There are many cases of other innovations being bought up and mothballed…

As Acemoglu and Robinson point out, in a different political climate, the inventor could have taken his invention to market without the explicit knowledge and permission of the ruling elite (such as the emperor). That would be a world in which, to return to my opening question, there would more likely be technology benefits for everyone, rather than control of technology being subordinated to the benefits of a clique.

But our current political climate is highly troubled. My friend and Humanity+ UK co-organiser Amon Kalkin describes the situation like this:

We are in a time of crisis. Large numbers of people are increasingly disenfranchised, squeezed on all sides and with no hope of appeal to authorities. Why? Because those very same authorities – our governments – are virtually indistinguishable from the corporate interests who are gaining most from the current situation. We live under a system where our votes essentially don’t matter. You can pick a team, but you’re not allowed to change the rules of the game. Even worse, we have been trained to think of this as a normal and natural situation. Who are we to question these powerful people? Who are we to awaken, to unify and demand change?

Rather than just considering the topic “Why Nations Fail“, we might well consider “Why Transnational Institutions Fail” – referring to, for example, the evident problems within the Eurozone and within the United Nations.

The same imperative applies: we need to find a mode of collaboration that avoids being subverted by the special interests of ruling minorities – whether these minorities be economic elites or political elites.

That imperative has led Amon to found the Zero State movement:

Zero State is a movement for positive social change through technology.

We’re a grass-roots world community pursuing smart, compassionate solutions to problems, and improving the human condition.

Personal transformative technologies we pursue include life extension and Artificial Intelligence. Social projects include accelerating changebasic incomeMeshnet and Bitcoin, while lifestyle initiatives explore areas such as the arts, spirituality, fashion and culture.

More recently, Amon and various other Zero State members are launching a political party, “Consensus“, to promote their Zero State vision. My quote above (“We are in a time of crisis…”) comes from Amon’s description of what he plans to say at the launch meeting for Consensus that will take place next weekend in London.

For more details about this launch event, see this announcement on the London Futurist meetup site:

The case for a Zero State political movement

Many futurists envisage a better, more compassionate society, organized in terms of using technological developments to maximize well-being rather than simply concentrating resources in a few ultra-rich hands and leaving everybody else increasingly worse off. But all too often, futurists talk about positive outcomes as if such things come without work or struggle. They are apparently oblivious to the fact that right now our society is stalling, strangled by a tiny proportion of citizens who do not share our values.

There have been few moments in the history of our society like the one facing us now, where deep crisis also offers the opportunity for deep, positive change. It’s the time for futurists to step up to actively guide our society toward the better futures we envisage.

The CONSENSUS is a newly-formed UK-based political party which seeks to harness the intelligence and compassion to be found among futurists and other subcultures to the design of a real, improved future, for us and our children. Drawing inspiration from the eight principles of the Zero State movement, the CONSENSUS will encourage people to think about the possibilities open to society once again.

The CONSENSUS is the first party of its kind. We intend to reach out to other parties and groups who share similar views and goals. If we are successful, there will soon be a number of CONSENSUS parties at the national level around the world, all part of an organization known as the Consensus of Democratic Futurist Parties (CDFP). The UK CONSENSUS is already affiliated with an international futurist organization in the Zero State movement, and the seeds of multiple local political parties have been sown.

We welcome the opportunity to hear your views about the state of society today and its future, and what are the issues and goals that we should focus on. No matter what your own views are, this is your chance to have your say, and to have it influence a concrete course of action.

If you care about our future, and the possibility of finding intelligent, compassionate solutions to our problems, then we encourage you to come to this meeting to:

  • find out how you can help
  • join the conversation
  • offer your views on how we should move forward…

1 April 2012

Why good people are divided by politics and religion

Filed under: books, collaboration, evolution, motivation, passion, politics, psychology, RSA — David Wood @ 10:58 pm

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have thanked me over the years for drawing their attention to the book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom” written by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. That was a book with far-reaching scope and penetrating insight. Many of the ideas and metaphors in it have since become fundamental building blocks for other writers to use – such as the pithy metaphor of the human mind being divided like a rider on an elephant, with the job of the rider (our stream of conscious reasoning) being to serve the elephant (the other 99% of our mental processes).

This weekend, I’ve been reading Haidt’s new book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”. It’s a great sequel. Like its predecessor, it ranges across more than 2,400 years of thought, highlighting how recent research in social psychology sheds clear light on age-old questions.

Haidt’s analysis has particular relevance for two deeply contentious sets of debates that each threaten to destabilise and divide contemporary civil society:

  • The “new atheism” critique of the relevance and sanctity of religion in modern life
  • The political fissures that are coming to the fore in the 2012 US election year – fissures I see reflected in messages full of contempt and disdain in the Facebook streams of some several generally sensible US-based people I know.

There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to summarise it without doing an injustice to huge chunks of fascinating material:

  • the importance of an empirical approach to understanding human morality – an approach based on observation, rather than on a priori rationality
  • moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second, to justify the intuitions we have already reached
  • there’s more to morality than concerns over harm and fairness; Haidt memorably says that “the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors”
  • the limitations of basing research findings mainly on ‘WEIRD‘ participants (people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)
  • the case for how biological “group selection” helped meld humans (as opposed to natural selection just operating at the level of individual humans)
  • a metaphor that “human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee”
  • the case that “The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction”
  • methods for flicking a “hive switch” inside human brains that open us up to experiences of self-transcendence (including a discussion of rave parties).

The first chapter of the book is available online – as part of a website dedicated to the book. You can also get a good flavour of some of the ideas in the book from two talks Haidt has given at TED: “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence” (watch it full screen to get the full benefits of the video effects):

and (from a few years back – note that Haidt has revised some of his thinking since the date of this talk) “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives“:

Interested to find out more? I strongly recommend that you read the book itself. You may also enjoy watching a wide-ranging hour-long interview between Haidt and Robert Wright – author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Evolution of God.

Footnote: Haidt is talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts on lunchtime on Tuesday 10th April; you can register to be included on the waiting list in case more tickets become available. The same evening, he’ll be speaking at the Royal Institution; happily, the Royal Institution website says that there is still “good availability” for tickets:

Jonathan Haidt, the highly influential psychologist, is here to show us why we all find it so hard to get along. By examining where morality comes from, and why it is the defining characteristic of humans, Haidt will show why we cannot dismiss the views of others as mere stupidity or moral corruption. Our moral roots run much deeper than we realize. We are hardwired not just to be moral, but moralistic and self-righteous. From advertising to politics, morality influences all aspects of behaviour. It is the key to understanding everybody. It explains why some of us are liberals, others conservatives. It is often the difference between war and peace. It is also why we are the only species that will kill for an ideal.

Haidt argues we are always talking past each other because we are appealing to different moralities: it is not just about justice and fairness – for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty are more important. With new evidence from his own empirical research, Haidt will show it is possible to liberate us from the disputes that divide good people. We can either stick to comforting delusions about others, or learn some moral psychology. His hope is that ultimately we can cooperate with those whose morals differ from our own.

28 December 2010

Some suggested books for year-end reading

Looking for suggestions on books to read, perhaps over the year-end period of reflection and resolution for renewal?

Here are my comments on five books I’ve finished over the last few months, each of which has given me a lot to think about.

Switch: How to change things when change is hard – by Chip & Dan Heath

I had two reasons for expecting I would like this book:

I was not disappointed.  The book is full of advice that seems highly practical – advice that can be used to overcome all kinds of obstacles that people encounter when trying to change something for the better.  The book helpfully lists some of these obstacles in a summary chapter near its end.  They include:

  • “People here don’t see the need for change”
  • “People resist my idea because they say, ‘We’ve never done it like that before'”
  • “We should do doing something, but we’re getting bogged down in analysis”
  • “The environment has shifted, and we need to overcome our old patterns of behaviour”
  • “People here simply aren’t motivated to change”
  • “People here keep saying ‘It will never work'”
  • “I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it”
  • “I’ll change tomorrow”…

Each chapter has profound insights.  I particularly liked the insight that, from the right perspective, the steps to create a solution are often easier than the problem itself.  This is a pleasant antidote to the oft-repeated assertion that solutions need to be more profound, more complex, or more sophisticated, that the problems they address.  On the contrary, change efforts frequently fail because the change effort is focussing on the wrong part of the big picture.  You can try to influence either the “rider”, the “elephant”, or the “path” down which the elephant moves.  Spend your time trying to influence the wrong part of this combo, and you can waste a great deal of energy.  But get the analysis right, and even people who appear to hate change can embrace a significant transformation.  It all depends on the circumstance.

The book offers nine practical steps – three each for the three different parts of this model:

  • Direct the rider: Find the bright spots; Script the critical moves; Point to the destination
  • Motivate the elephant: Find the feeling; Shrink the change; Grow your people
  • Shape the path: Tweak the environment; Build habits; Rally the herd.

These steps may sound trite, but these simple words summarise, in each case, a series of inspirational examples of real-world change.

The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work – by Shawn Achor

“The happiness advantage” shares with “Switch” the fact that it is rooted in the important emerging discipline of positive psychology.  But whereas “Switch” addresses the particular area of change management, “The happiness advantage” has a broader sweep.  It seeks to show how a range of recent findings from positive psychology can be usefully applied in a work setting, to boost productivity and performance.  The author, Shawn Achor, describes many of these findings in the context of the 10 years he spent at Harvard.  These findings include:

  • Rather than the model in which people work hard and then achieve success and then become happy, the causation goes the other way round: people with a happy outlook are more creative, more resilient, and more productive, are able to work both harder and smarter, and are therefore more likely to achieve success in their work (Achor compares this reversal of causation to the “Copernican revolution” which saw the sun as the centre of the solar system, rather than the earth)
  • Our character (including our degree of predisposition to a happy outlook) is not fixed, but can be changed by activity – this is an example of neural plasticity
  • “The Tetris effect”: once you train your brain to spot positive developments (things that merit genuine praise), that attitude increasingly becomes second nature, with lots of attendant benefits
  • Rather than a vibrant social support network being a distraction from our core activities, it can provide us with the enthusiasm and the community to make greater progress
  • “Falling up”: the right mental attitude can gain lots of advantage from creative responses to situations of short-term failure
  • “The Zorro circle”: rather than focussing on large changes, which could take a long time to accomplish, there’s great merit in restricting attention to a short period of time (perhaps one hour, or perhaps just five minutes), and to a small incremental improvement on the status quo.  Small improvements can accumulate a momentum of their own, and lead on to big wins!
  • Will power is limited – and is easily drained.  So, follow the “20 second rule”: take the time to rearrange your environment – such as your desk, or your office – so that the behaviour you’d like to happen is the easiest (“the default”).  When you’re running on auto-pilot, anything that requires a detour of more than 20 seconds is much less likely to happen.  (Achor gives the example of taking the batteries out of his TV remote control, to make it less likely he would sink into his sofa on returning home and inadvertently watch TV, rather than practice the guitar as he planned.  And – you guessed it – he made sure the guitar was within easy reach.)

You might worry that this is “just another book about the power of positive thinking”.  However, I see it as a definite step beyond that genre.  This is not a book that seeks to paint on a happy face, or to pretend that problems don’t exist.  As Achor says, “Happiness is not the belief that we don’t need to change.  It is the realization that we can”.

Nonsense on stilts: how to tell science from bunk – by Massimo Pigliucci

Many daft, dangerous ideas are couched in language that sounds scientific.  Being able to distinguish good science from “pseudoscience” is sometimes called the search for a “demarcation principle“.

The author of this book, evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci, has strong views about the importance of distinguishing science from pseudoscience.  To set the scene, he gives disturbing examples such as people who use scientific-sounding language to deny the connection between HIV and AIDS (and who often advocate horrific, bizarre treatments for AIDS), or who frighten parents away from vaccinating their children by quoting spurious statistics about links between vaccination and autism.  This makes it clear that the subject is far from being an academic one, just for armchair philosophising.  On the other hand, attempts by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper to identify a clear, watertight demarcation principle all seem to fail.  Science is too varied an enterprise to be capable of a simple definition.  As a result, it can take lots of effort to distinguish good science from bad science.  Nevertheless, this effort is worth it.  And this book provides a sweeping, up-to-date survey of the issues that arise.

The book brought me back to my own postgraduate studies from 1982-1986.  My research at that time covered the philosophy of mind, the characterisation of pseudo-science, creationism vs. Darwinism, and the shocking implications of quantum mechanics.  All four of these areas were covered in this book – and more besides.

It’s a book with many opinions.  I think it gets them about 85% right.  I particularly liked:

  • His careful analysis of why “Intelligent Design” is bad science
  • His emphasis on how pseudoscience produces no new predictions, but is intellectually infertile
  • His explanation of the problems of parapsychology (studies of extrasensory perception)
  • The challenges he lays down to various fields which appear grounded in mainstream science, but which are risking divergence away from scientific principles – fields such as superstring theory and SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence).

Along the way, Pigliucci shares lots of fascinating anecdotes about the history of science, and about the history of philosophy of science.  He’s a great story-teller.

The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires – by Tim Wu

Whereas “Nonsense on stilts” surveys the history of science, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to continue to find out deeper truths about the world, “The master switch” surveys many aspects of the modern history of business, and draws out lessons about the most productive ways to organise society so that information can be shared in the most effective way.

The author, Tim Wu, is a professor at Columbia Law School, and (if anything) is an even better story-teller than Pigliucci.  He gives rivetting accounts of many of the key episodes in various information businesses, such as those based on the telephone, radio, TV, cinema, cable TV, the personal computer, and the Internet.  Lots of larger-than-life figures stride across the pages.  The accounts fit together as constituents of an over-arching narrative:

  • Control over information technologies is particularly important for the well-being of society
  • There are many arguments in favour of centralised control, which avoids wasteful inefficiencies of competition
  • Equally, there are many arguments in favour of decentralised control, with open access to the various parts of the system
  • Many information industries went through one (or more phases) of decentralised control, with numerous innovators working independently, before centralisation took place (or re-emerged)
  • Government regulation sometimes works to protect centralised infrastructure, and sometimes to ensure that adequate competition takes place
  • Opening up an industry to greater competition often introduces a period of relative chaos and increased prices for consumers, before the greater benefits of richer innovation have a chance to emerge (often in unexpected ways)
  • The Internet is by no means the first information industry for which commentators had high, idealistic hopes: similar near-utopian visions also accompanied the emergence of broadcast radio and of cable television
  • A major drawback of centralised control is that too much power is vested in just one place – in what can be called a “master switch” – allowing vested interests to drastically interfere with the flow of information.

AT&T – the company founded by Bell – features prominently in this book, both as a hero, and as a villain.  Wu describes how AT&T suppressed various breakthrough technologies (including magnetic disk recording, usable in answering machines) for many years, out of a fear that they would damage the company’s main business.  Similarly, RCA suppressed FM radio for many years, and also delayed the adoption of electronic television.  Legal delays were often a primary means to delay and frustrate competitors, whose finances lacked such deep pockets.

Wu often highlights ways in which business history could have taken different directions.  The outcome that actually transpired was often a close-run thing, compared to what seemed more likely at the time.  This emphasises the contingent nature of much of history, rather than events being inevitable.  (I know this from my own experiences at Symbian.  Recent articles in The Register emphasise how Symbian nearly died at birth, well before powering more than a quarter of a billion smartphones.  Other stories, as yet untold, could emphasise how the eventual relative decline of Symbian was by no means a foretold conclusion either.)

But the biggest implications Wu highlights are when the stories come up to date, in what he sees as a huge conflict between powers that want to control modern information technology resources, and those that prefer greater degrees of openness.  As Wu clarifies, it’s a complex landscape, but Apple’s iPhone approach aims at greater centralised design control, whereas Google’s Android approach aims at enabling a much wider number of connections – connections where many benefits arise, without the need to negotiate and maintain formal partnerships.

Compared to previous information technologies, the Internet has greater elements of decentralisation built into it.  However, the lessons of the previous chapters in “The master switch” are that even this decentralisation is vulnerable to powerful interests seizing control and changing its nature.  That gives greater poignancy to present-day debates over “network neutrality” – a term that was coined by Wu in a paper he wrote in 2002.

Sex at dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality – by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

(Sensitive readers should probably stop reading now…)

In terms of historical sweep, this last book outdoes all the others on my list.  It traces the origins of several modern human characteristics far into prehistory – to the time before agriculture, when humans existed as nomadic hunter-gatherers, with little sense of personal exclusive ownership.

This book reminds me of this oft-told story:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

I’ve read a lot on evolution over the years, and I think the evidence husband and wife authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha accumulate chapter after chapter, in “Sex at dawn”, is reasonably convincing – even though elements of present day “polite society” may well prefer this evidence not to become “generally known”.  The authors tell a story with many jaw-dropping episodes.

Among other things, the book systematically challenges the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan that, absent a government, people would lead lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  On the contrary, the book marshals evidence, direct and indirect, that pre-agricultural people could enjoy relatively long lives, with ample food, and a strong sense of community.  Key to this mode of existence was “fierce sharing”, in which everyone felt a strong obligation to share food within the group … and not only food.  The X-rated claim in the book is that the sharing extended to “parallel multi-male, multi-female sexual relationships”, which bolstered powerful community identities.  Monogamy is, therefore, far from being exclusively “natural”.  Evidence in support of this conclusion includes:

  • Comparisons to behaviour in bonobos and chimps – the apes which are our closest evolutionary cousins
  • The practice in several contemporary nomadic tribes, in which children are viewed as having many fathers
  • Various human anatomical features, copulatory behaviour, aspects of sperm wars, etc.

In this analysis, human sexual nature developed under one set of circumstances for several million years, until dramatic changes in relatively recent times with the advent of agriculture, cities, and widespread exclusive ownership.  Social philosophies (including religions) have sought to change the norms of behaviour, with mixed success.

I’ll leave the last words to Ryan and Jetha, from their online FAQ:

We’re not recommending anything other than knowledge, introspection, and honesty. In fact, as we say in the book, we’re not really sure what to do with this information ourselves.

15 April 2010

Accelerating automation and the future of work

Filed under: AGI, Economics, futurist, Google, politics, regulation, robots — David Wood @ 2:45 am

London is full of pleasant surprises.

Yesterday evening, I travelled to The Book Club in Shoreditch, EC2A, and made my way to the social area downstairs.  What’s your name? asked the person at the door.  I gave my name, and in return received a stick-on badge saying

Hi, I’m David.

Talk to me about the future of humanity!

I was impressed.  How do they know I like to talk to people about the future of humanity?

Then I remembered that the whole event I was attending was under the aegis of a newly formed group calling itself “Future Human“.  It was their third meeting, over the course of just a few weeks – but the first I had heard about (and decided to attend).  Everyone’s badge had the same message.  About 120 people crammed into the downstairs room – making it standing room only (since there were only around 60 seats).  Apart from the shortage of seats, the event was well run, with good use of roaming mikes from the floor.

The event started with a quick-fire entertaining presentation by author and sci-fi expert Sam Jordison.  His opening question was blunt:

What can you do that a computer can’t do?

He then listed lots of occupations from the past which technology had rendered obsolete.  Since one of my grandfathers was the village blacksmith, I found a personal resonance with this point.  It will soon be the same for many existing professions, Sam said: computers are becoming better and better at all sorts of tasks which previously would have required creative human input.  Journalism is particularly under threat.  Likewise accountancy.  And so on, and so on.

In general terms, that’s a thesis I agree with.  For example, I anticipate a time before long when human drivers will be replaced by safer robot alternatives.

I quibble with the implication that, as existing jobs are automated, there will be no jobs left for humans to do.  Instead, I see that lots of new occupations will become important.  “Shape of Jobs to Come”, a report (PDF) by Fast Future Research, describes 20 jobs that people could be doing in the next 20 years:

  1. Body part maker
  2. Nano-medic
  3. Pharmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock
  4. Old age wellness manager/consultant
  5. Memory augmentation surgeon
  6. ‘New science’ ethicist
  7. Space pilots, tour guides and architects
  8. Vertical farmers
  9. Climate change reversal specialist
  10. Quarantine enforcer
  11. Weather modification police
  12. Virtual lawyer
  13. Avatar manager / devotees / virtual teachers
  14. Alternative vehicle developers
  15. Narrowcasters
  16. Waste data handler
  17. Virtual clutter organiser
  18. Time broker / Time bank trader
  19. Social ‘networking’ worker
  20. Personal branders

(See the original report for explanations of some of these unusual occupation names!)

In other words, as technology improves to remove existing occupations, new occupations will become significant – occupations that build in unpredictable ways on top of new technology.

But only up to a point.  In the larger picture, I agree with Sam’s point that even these new jobs will quickly come under the scope of rapidly improving automation.  The lifetime of occupations will shorten and shorten.  And people will typically spend fewer hours working each week (on paid tasks).

Is this a worry? Yes, if we assume that we need to work long hours, to justify our existence, or to earn sufficient income to look after our families.  But I disagree with these assumptions. Improved technology, wisely managed, should be able to result, not just in less labour left over for humans to do, but also in great material abundance – plenty of energy, food, and other resources for everyone.  We’ll become able – at last – to spend more of our time on activities that we deeply enjoy.

The panel discussion that followed touched on many of these points. The panellists – Peter Kirwan from Wired, Victor Henning from Mendeley, and Carsten Sorensen and Jannis Kallinikos from the London School of Economics – sounded lots of notes of optimism:

  • We shouldn’t create unnecessary distinctions between “human” and “machine”.  After all, humans are kinds of machines too (“meat machines“);
  • The best kind of intelligence combines human elements and machine elements – in what Google have called “hybrid intelligence“;
  • Rather than worrying about computers displacing humans, we can envisage computers augmenting humans;
  • In case computers become troublesome, we should be able to regulate them, or even to switch them off.

Again, in general terms, these are points I agree with.  However, I believe these tasks will be much harder to accomplish than the panel implied. To that extent, I believe that the panel were too optimistic.

After all, if we can barely regulate rapidly changing financial systems, we’ll surely find it even harder to regulate rapidly changing AI systems.  Before we’ve been able to work out if such-and-such an automated system is an improvement on its predecessors, that system may have caused too many rapid irreversible changes.

Worse, there could be a hard-to-estimate “critical mass” effect.  Rapidly accumulating intelligent automation is potentially akin to accumulating nuclear material until it unexpectedly reaches an irreversible critical mass.  The resulting “super cloud” system will presumably state very convincing arguments to us, for why such and such changes in regulations make great sense.  The result could be outstandingly good – but equally, it could be outstandingly bad.

Moreover, it’s likely to prove very hard to “switch off the Internet” (or “switch off Google”).  We’ll be so dependent on the Internet that we’ll be unable to disconnect it, even though we recognise there are bad consequences,

If all of this happens in slow motion, we would be OK.  We’d be able to review it and debug it in real time.  However, the lessons from the recent economic crisis is that these changes can take place almost too quickly for human governments to intervene.  That’s why we need to ensure, ahead of time, that we have a good understanding of what’s happeningAnd that’s why there should be lots more discussions of the sort that took place at Future Human last night.

The final question from the floor raised a great point: why isn’t this whole subject receiving prominence in the current UK general election debates?  My answer: It’s down to those of us who do see the coming problems to ensure that the issues get escalated appropriately.

Footnote: Regular readers will not be surprised if I point out, at this stage, that many of these same topics will be covered in the Humanity+ UK2010 event happening in Conway Hall, Holborn, London, on Saturday 24 April.  The panellists at the Future Human event were good, but I believe that the H+UK speakers will be even better!

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